Slow to anger

After raising two daughters, some of my grandson’s antics surprise and puzzle me. From the time he could first toddle around, Joshua had to have a stick whenever we went outside. But said treasure wasn’t merely a bit of yard debris. In his hands it quickly became a fishing pole or a sword or a gun. He soon had me enacting parts of his scenarios, be they tracking down bad guys, rounding up cattle or marching into battle. I purchased a copy of James Dobson’s “Bringing up Boys” and conferred with a friend, grandmother to six little boys. Both confirmed Joshua’s behavior was quite normal, part of his God-given design to protect and provide.

As sisters Lyla and Emma joined the family, Joshua incorporated them into his playtime activities. The girls are usually happy to join in. But sometimes one or the other will announce, “I don’t want to play boy stuff”, and return to her craft project or resume twirling around the living room in full princess regalia. Having been rebuffed, Joshua may resort to annoying his would-be playmates – interrupting their girly activity, begging them to reconsider, stealing a favorite stuffed animal which always provokes a chase – anything to get his sisters to engage.

IMG_E0789These and similar interactions between the siblings give me ample opportunities to play referee on Grammie days as we cycle from harmonious play to sob-laced outbursts and back multiple times. As the hours pass, my reserves of patience often diminish. And so it was one recent afternoon when Joshua inadvertently knocked Lyla’s special colored pencils off the kitchen table, scattering all 24 of them on the floor.

My voice taut, I asked Joshua to step away. “We’ve got too many people crowded around to be able to do anything!”

Sensing that the pencils clattering to the ground may just have been the tipping point of yet another rainy day that had kept us cooped up like our neighbors’ chickens, Joshua obeyed immediately.

But, thankfully, before I could utter another word, Lyla started comforting her brother who’d hunkered down in a corner. “It’s ok, Joshua. I know you didn’t mean to. It was an accident. Really, it’s ok.”

And she was right. Even though her brother had engaged in his usual boyish, sister-baiting tactics throughout the day, he hadn’t intentionally caused her precious pencils to fall. 5-year-old Lyla’s kindness both silenced and convicted me. I’ve reflected on her response several times since, such a beautiful example of bearing with one another, being slow to anger and quick to forgive.

It’s so easy to feel slighted, isn’t it? Too often we think the worst or take offense where none was intended. Each of us is a unique bundle of experiences and emotions which in turn influence our actions and reactions. We interpret the behavior of others through those filters, as they interpret ours through theirs, sometimes leading to misunderstandings.

For example, consider my compulsion to begin almost all communications, including those intended to be brief, i.e. text messages, with a personal greeting so as not to appear rude. I’m guessing plenty of the recipients of my communiqués would prefer “just the facts, ma’am” since we’re all bombarded with more than we can possibly read or reply to. Nonetheless, most good-naturedly accept it as part of who I am. And, in the spirit of considering others, I’m trying to be more concise, while not equating their brevity with curtness. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Scripture repeatedly describes God as merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.[1] Psalm 103:13-14 portrays Him as a compassionate Father who remembers His children are dust. As those dearly-loved children, we are to do likewise:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)

O, Lord, please grant us discernment so we, like Lyla, might rightly determine when one of our fellow dusty sojourners hasn’t meant to hurt or offend us. May we be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:18), forgiving others as You’ve so graciously forgiven us. (Luke 6:37)

[1] See, for example, Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, 103:8 and 145:8

Keeping current

IMG_0321I’m playing catch-up. December descended, as it always does, with its attendant whirlwind of activities. I’m one of those who revel in the festivities, from sending and receiving cards to plotting gift strategy with family members to savoring special meals with loved ones. But, as I’m enjoying the merriment the season has to offer, day-to-day chores and responsibilities start to pile up and about now, as the celebrations wind down, I realize just how far behind I am. I don’t regret my decision to enjoy the season, since it comes but once a year, while chores persist year-round. But I know I now need to pick up the reins and get the more mundane aspects of life back in order. As much as I relish celebrating, I also look forward to returning to a normal schedule.

There are times when it’s ok to step back from our daily routines, to focus on special occasions and events, to appreciate holidays and vacations. But the Bible is clear there are some things we need to make every effort to keep current on, many of which involve relationships. Consider, for example:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27)

I don’t like conflict. I’d much rather compliment than confront. Faced with disappointment, I’m more likely to withdraw, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, or risk being hurt more deeply myself. Yet these two passages direct us to address discord in a timely manner and not allow misunderstandings to fester. I’ve learned first-hand the necessity of doing so. Unresolved differences provide fertile soil for Satan to inflict further misery, including divisions and estrangement.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1-9)

Here we receive guidance on how to conduct our relationships. We are to treat each other with kindness and consideration, humbly forgiving as we ourselves have been forgiven. God asks nothing of us that He hasn’t already done Himself in ways that far surpass any giving or humbling or forgiving we’ll ever do.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18b-21)

These last two passages are similar in their decree: we’re to give thanks, rejoice and pray continually – no slacking or falling behind!

The directives in the passages above are impossible for us to carry out in our own strength, but, praise God, we’ve been given the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do far more abundantly than all we ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20-21) May we ever depend on Him to help us keep current in the things that matter most.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

Bucket-fillers

Most Mondays and Wednesdays find me at daughter Mary’s house. As 1pm draws nigh, I start herding 7-year-old Joshua and 2-year-old Emma toward the car so we can pick almost-5-year-old Lyla up from pre-school. Depending on the number of distraction-produced detours they take, the process can last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Likewise, the drive to school and back may be filled with enthusiastic commentary on the scenes passing by or with shrieks of “Grammie, tell (insert sibling’s name) not to look at/touch/talk to me!!!” Yes, the trek to retrieve Lyla from school and return home safely is often the most stressful part of my day.

But a couple of Mondays ago, the events surrounding our mid-day trip were decidedly pleasant. As soon as Lyla and her teacher exited the building, Joshua, exclaimed, “Lyla’s got the bucket! She’s kid of the day!!” And so she was.

As Lyla climbed aboard and buckled up for the ride home, we all started talking excitedly. Congratulatory remarks blended with curious queries regarding the contents of her bucket. Several pieces of candy, a stencil, a super-cool, light-up pen, a certificate declaring her kid-of-the-day and two books resided inside.

IMG_6750Joshua read the books to us after lunch. They were all about how we fill or empty each other’s imaginary buckets by being kind or being mean. Furthermore, the books pointed out we’re doing one or the other all the time. The narrative went on to say that by filling up others’ buckets, we’re filling up our own as well since being helpful, obedient and thoughtful makes situations better for everyone involved. Bucket-fillers, buoyed by the results of their good deeds, are much happier than bucket-dumpers, whose actions contribute to continued strife.

As I listened to Joshua’s expressive reading, I smiled knowing I was hearing a child-friendly version of one of my most cherished spiritual principles: our calling to glorify God by being life-giving helpers. This concept was introduced to me over two decades ago by Susan Hunt, my dear friend and spiritual mother.

In the beginning, when God spoke everything into existence, He declared it all good, with one exception. In Genesis 2:18, God states, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” The helper was so perfect, Adam stated, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23)

Her name (Woman) acknowledged her equal status before God, having been created in God’s image just as Adam was, though her function was different. Lest we think women’s helper position is somehow inferior, we need only look at other uses of the Hebrew word ezer (translated “helper”) in the Old Testament. It is frequently used to describe attributes of God Himself: Defender (Exodus 18:4), Protector (Psalm 33:20), Comforter (Psalm 86:17), Deliverer (Psalm 70:5), Champion of the poor and oppressed (Psalm 72:12-14).[1] These are strong, necessary, life-giving roles.

But sin intervened. As Susan explains:

“When the man and woman sinned, Woman lost her ability to be a true helper. At this point of hopelessness, God gave hope. He promised that the woman’s offspring would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Adam affirmed and celebrated his belief in this promise by renaming her. ‘The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living’ (Genesis 3:30). Eve means ‘life-giver’. Because of her rebellion the woman became a life-taker, but because of the promise of life she became a ‘life-giver’. This is more than biological. Woman’s redemptive calling is to be a life-giver in every relationship and circumstance.”[2] (Emphasis mine.)

Left to ourselves, we would be utterly incapable of carrying out our calling. But, praise God, He didn’t leave it up to us. Because of Jesus’ promise-fulfilling sacrifice on our behalf, we’ve been given hearts of flesh that want to please our Lord and Savior and the power of His indwelling Spirit to help us accomplish His purposes. (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Ephesians 1:19-20)

Though being life-givers is part of women’s distinctive design, all believers are called to love and serve others well, as evidenced by:

  • God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, which Jesus confirmed as being second only to the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. (Mark 12:28-31)
  • Jesus’ instruction to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, a concept so basic and essential that we refer to it as “The Golden Rule”. (Matthew 7:12)
  • Jesus’ reminder that when we care for the needy among us, we’re caring for Him. (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • Paul’s teaching that we should consider other’s needs before our own, following Jesus’ example of humility. (Philippians 2:3-8)
  • James’ warning that faith without works is dead. In fact, true faith will result in action – good fruit produced from being intimately and securely attached to the Life-giving Vine. (James 2:14-17; John 15:4-5)

As sojourners longing for Home, we may be tempted to despair when we look at current events. Most of us don’t have the influence or following to bring about change on a grand scale. But we belong to the One who is Sovereign over all things. (Psalm 2) He’s assigned us a place (Acts 17:24-26) and calls us to be life-givers in the midst of our unique situations – in our families, our communities, our churches. From brief exchanges with fellow shoppers in a check-out line all the way to decades-long relationships with cherished friends and family members, we are called to be life-givers in every relationship and circumstance.

Lyla is a sweet-natured child, a blessing to all in her small sphere of influence. She earned her kid-of-the-day title by collecting five “warm fuzzies”, each representing an act of kindness toward her teacher or classmates. May we be equally faithful to fill others’ buckets with hope and truth as we point them to the ultimate Giver of Life. (John 1:1-5; John 10:10-11)

 

[1] J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, (Wheaton, IL; Crossway Books, 2006), pp. 34-35

[2] Ibid, p. 34

Never alone

Later this month, I’ll mark the 26th anniversary of my family’s move to Georgia. My tenure in the home my late husband Ray and I chose as our “raise-the-kids” house will then surpass by a decade my second-longest-term abode, the house I grew up in. Neighbors have come and gone over the years and I’ve watched several crops of children, including my own dear daughters, grow up. Currently, the homes around my cul-de-sac are filled with a pleasant mix of young families and empty-nesters.

IMG_6001I was working in my garden one recent afternoon, when my youngest neighbor, sweet-spirited Sadie, paid me a visit. We were chatting about flowers and butterflies and bumblebees when she suddenly asked, “Do you have a husband?” I replied, “I used to, but he’s already in heaven. He planted a lot of my trees. That’s why I love them so much.” As I watched, belatedly realizing I’d given a much-too-detailed reply to her simple question, her countenance was overshadowed by a pensive consternation. Nonetheless, before I had a chance to offer up something more appropriate, Sadie’s expression brightened once again as she assured me, “But you’re not alone! You have lots of people around you!” I immediately followed up with, “You’re right! I have such good neighbors.”

With this, we took turns naming all the folks who live around us. Sadie finished the list, “And Sophie!” Yes, the boisterous ball of fluffy white fur, canine companion to our newest neighbors, is an established part of the mix. With our conversation thus concluded, Sadie skipped happily across the street and up her driveway.

I’ve reflected on our exchange several times since. It was such a life-giving reminder of the blessing of community. Created in the image of our Triune God, we are meant to live in relationship with Him and others. Early on, God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Although the Genesis account refers specifically to Adam’s need of a suitable helpmate (wife), it’s also clear the animals couldn’t provide the requisite companionship fellow human beings could.[1] People need people. We’re not meant to navigate life alone.

Sometimes it’s tempting to try, especially if you’re an introvert or an I-can-handle-this-myself type. Or maybe you figure everyone else is busy with their own responsibilities and you don’t want to be a bother. Or perhaps you’ve gotten your feelings hurt one time too many and decided to withdraw. (Please note: each of these scenarios has applied to me at some point in my life and most likely will again!) Whatever your rationale might be, Scripture is full of passages on the importance of relationships as well as how to treat each other. We’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves,[2] to consider others’ needs before our own,[3] to share and forgive and encourage.[4]

In addition to our biological families, those who belong to God are part of a spiritual family, with unique benefits and obligations. For example:

  • The Apostle Paul says believers form the Body of Christ on earth, with each having a specific role, just as the various parts of our physical bodies have a critical part in keeping us healthy and alive. We are called to use our gifts and abilities to benefit others and to refrain from comparing ourselves to our brothers and sisters whose gifts and abilities are different.[5]
  • We’ve been adopted into the very family of God and are being conformed more and more into the image of our elder Brother, Jesus, the firstborn Son.[6] We are assured of an eternal inheritance and an eternal Home.[7]
  • Though spending time with God individually is essential to our spiritual growth and transformation, Hebrews 10:24-25 clearly states the necessity of corporate worship: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
  • There are numerous passages encouraging believers to pray for one another. Such supplications can unite us, even when we’re unable to be together physically.[8] Furthermore, Scripture tells us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who’ve gone before us, persevering in the faith. [9]
  • We are blessed with the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide and counsel us. [10] Apart from this divine Helper, we’d have no hope of pleasing God; with Him, our sanctification and, ultimately, our glorification, are ensured. [11]

Throughout most of my career, I traveled to visit customers. Early on, there were no cell phones, much less apps like “Find Friends”. Sometimes I’d be driving on a dark, lonely stretch of road when a stark realization would enter my thoughts: “No one in the whole world knows where I am right now.” But, just as quickly, a comforting reassurance followed: “God knows.” And so it is for all his children. We’re never out of his sight.[12]

Family and friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, a loving Father, a selfless older Brother, the indwelling Spirit – sweet Sadie is so right. I’m not alone, ever!

 

[1] Genesis 2:18-23

[2] Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27

[3] Philippians 2:3-4

[4] Luke 6:27-38

[5] 1 Corinthians 12

[6] Ephesians 1:3-5, Romans 8:29

[7] 1 Peter 1:3-5, John 14:2-3

[8] See for example, Ephesians 6:18-19, Colossians 1:3-14, Colossians 4:2-4

[9] Hebrews 12:1-2. Note, this passage begins with “Therefore”, referring back to the long list of bygone saints who lived by faith.

[10] John 14:15-17, 25-26

[11] 2 Thessalonians 1:11, 2 Peter 1:3-11

[12] Psalm 33:18, Psalm 34:15

No fit pitchin’

I bet it’s happened to you. You’ll read a passage of Scripture, one you’ve scanned countless times before, and the Spirit will point out something you hadn’t noticed previously. Not surprising, since God’s Word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.[1]

Such was the case when I was asked to prepare a devotion on Philippians 4:11. I suppose I’d always focused on Paul’s ability to be content in whatever situation he found himself in, but this time, “I have learned” caught my attention. The fact Paul had to learn how to be content implies contentment isn’t a natural state for us.

If we have any doubt about that, we need look no further than our children. Even if I’d forgotten the clashes and complaints of my own dear, now-adult daughters, I spend time with my beloved grandchildren, ages 2, 4 and 6, on a regular basis. Just the other day, all three were howling over the same orange ball. Said item held no interest whatsoever until one chose to play with it, whereupon it became the only toy worth having. This, even though there were dozens of other options to choose from.

Likewise, protests can erupt over perceived parental partiality, different foods touching on the dinner plate and being asked to come inside on a pretty day. As they get older, our offspring often chafe under our rules. Stakes are higher as peer pressure sets in and they become more aware of status associated with material belongings.

To be sure, I’m not saying dissatisfaction is only an issue for the young. We know contentment is just as tenuous and elusive for adults, if not more so. Frequently, we  strive to  fulfill not only our own needs, desires and expectations, but also those of our significant others – spouses, parents, children, friends. Too often we seek fulfillment in circumstances, relationships, accomplishments and/or possessions. But circumstances change, sometimes quickly, possessions lose their luster as the next best thing comes along and relationships can be stressful, especially if we’re people pleasers.

If we think of contentment as a first cousin to joy and peace, which are fruits of the Spirit,[2] we begin to see it isn’t a result of externals at all, but a reflection of our internal state. Neither is contentment an emotion. In one of his sermons on Philippians, our pastor declared, “Contentment is a state of being, anchored firmly in the confidence that God is sovereignly working out the details of our lives, moment by moment from beginning to end.”[3] That’s why Paul could say he’d learned to be content in any and every situation – the reason for his hope and the guarantee of his well-being, both temporal and eternal, rested in One who never changes.[4]

IMG_5098Faced with the orange-ball debacle, I decided no one would get to play with it. This, of course, resulted in more sobbing and anguished pleas. Eventually my three charges turned their attention to other things and peace prevailed, at least for a while. Mustering all her 2-year-old earnestness, Emma confided something to me. A smile accompanied my comprehension of what I’d missed the first time when she repeated, “No fit pitchin’, Gammie.” “That’s right, Emma. We don’t pitch fits when we don’t get what we want!”

“No fit pitchin’”, a phrase I’ve used innumerable times over the years, first with my daughters and now with my grandchildren. As I thought about the rounds of peace-followed-by-protest we’d cycled through several times that day, I wondered if I try my Father’s patience as much as my little ones try mine. No doubt I do, though my fits take a different form. Regardless of our stage of life, we have times of grumbling, fear and doubt because we’re still in the flesh.[5] That’s one reason we need each other – to remind our fellow sojourners of God’s promises. Indeed, being able to recount more and more examples of God’s faithfulness in my life and the lives of my friends is one of the best benefits of getting older. And it’s a great antidote to fit pitchin’!

Lord, please help us to say with Paul, “I’ve learned in whatever situation I am to be content”, knowing that no matter how many changes or challenges we’re faced with, You never change. You are the same from beginning to end, the Alpha and the Omega,[6] and your promises are trustworthy and true.[7]

 

For further study

The fourth chapter of Philippians holds many clues to the building blocks of the contentment Paul attests to:

  • In verses 4 thru 7 we’re told to rejoice ALWAYS, not to be anxious, to pray with thankfulness, with the promise that in so doing, the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Thankfulness is a key component of contentment, as we recognize and acknowledge all God has already done for us.
  • In verses 8 and 9 Paul encourages his readers to think on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Once again with the attendant benefit, “the God of peace will be with you.” Similarly, 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us to take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ, while 2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds us to keep our eyes fixed not on what is seen, but what is unseen, for the former is passing away and the latter is eternal.
  • When Paul says he’s learned to be content in whatever situation he finds himself, we know his life as an apostle wasn’t an easy one (major understatement). His second letter to the Corinthians details many of the hardships he endured for the Gospel, including beatings, shipwrecks and lack of adequate food and shelter.[8]
  • Nonetheless, in Philippians 4:12 Paul goes on to say, “I know how to be brought low and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” And in verse 13, a favorite of many Christians, Paul shares the “secret”: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Note his use of absolutes: every circumstance, all things.
  • Then finally in verse 19, the assurance that “God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Our loving heavenly Father, who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and sent his precious Son to die for us has promised to meet all our needs.

 

[1] Hebrews 4:12

[2] Galatians 5:22-23

[3] Pastor Ben Duncan, Grace Covenant PCA, Dallas, GA, sermon “The Secret of Contentment, July, 17, 2016

[4] Hebrews 13:8

[5] Psalm 103:13-14

[6] Revelation 22:13

[7] Revelation 21:5

[8] 2 Corinthians 11:24-27

Have you seen Jesus?

I caught a glimpse of Jesus. It happened in our local hospital, where Mom spent several nights while various tests were run in an attempt to discover the cause of her dizziness. Thankfully all results were normal. Upon receiving the good news of her imminent release, I went to check on Mom’s discharge papers. When I returned to her room moments later, the chair she’d been sitting in was empty. Her back was to me as she stood by the other patient’s bed and she had no idea I was observing her kind ministrations. Jesus’ love emanated from my tiny mother as she stood beside her roommate’s bed, gently holding the hand of a woman she’d just met the day before. Verbal communication was limited by a language barrier. Nonetheless, Mom’s spoken, “I love you”, was underscored with such tenderness, there could be no mistaking her message of encouragement and care.

I’ve thought about that brief encounter numerous times since it occurred nearly three weeks ago. So many lessons, so many reminders. The following may be a bit more stream-of-consciousness than usual, but I pray you’ll glean some points worth pondering.

On their inaugural album, Christian contemporary band, Casting Crowns, challenged, “But if we are the body, why aren’t His arms reaching? Why aren’t His hands healing? Why aren’t His words teaching? And if we are the body, why aren’t His feet going? Why is His love not showing them there is a way?”[1] Their lyrics remind me of the parable of the sheep and goats wherein Jesus made it clear that in caring for practical needs of the least among us, we are caring for Him.[2] Likewise, James emphasized that faith without works is dead.[3]

In the Acts 4 recounting of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, “when (the people) saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”[4] Peter, the disciple who was so afraid of being associated with Jesus on the night He was betrayed that he denied Him three times, courageous? Yes, that very same man, forgiven and restored by Jesus, empowered by the promised Holy Spirit, was notably, distinctly different. As believers, we too have been forgiven, restored and empowered. May we be conformed more and more to the image of Jesus, that others might readily take note of our association with Him.

In the lesson of the vine and the branches, Jesus promised we’ll bear good fruit as long as we abide in Him. But apart from Him, we wither and are useless.[5] Furthermore, Jesus taught that each tree is recognized by its fruit. Likewise, we bring forth fruit based on what’s stored in our hearts.[6] Thus, the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control[7] – must set us apart in an increasingly self-focused world.

IMG_5428Of all the fruits and gifts of the Spirit, love reigns supreme.[8] We are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves[9]; to love our brothers and sisters in Christ[10]; even to love our enemies.[11] In fact, love is to be the hallmark of those who belong to Jesus.[12]

I usually read each of my blog posts to Mom. I most likely won’t read this one. It would embarrass her. Her love and concern for others are such an innate part of who she is – a senior saint who bears much fruit for her Savior after many years of abiding in him. Accolades for those qualities would be discomfiting. And rightly so, since Jesus taught us not to perform our righteous deeds to impress others, but to please our Father, who sees all.[13] Furthermore, we’re called to work as if we’re working for the Lord, not men, knowing He is ultimately the One we serve.[14]

Although God is faithfully sanctifying us, perfection will remain elusive until Jesus returns to make all things new. Even the very best of us sin and fall short of the glory of God. How grateful I am for the spotless Lamb who took our iniquities upon Himself and paid the debt we owed so that even now, when the Father gazes at us, He sees the righteousness of his beloved Son.[15]

Dear Father, thank you for loving us so much You sent your only Son to die for us, that we might live with You forever.[16] Please help us to display Jesus’ attributes more and more, loving and serving others in such a way that they may taste and see that You are good.[17]

[1] “If We are the Body” from “Casting Crowns” by Casting Crowns, July 2003.

[2] Matthew 25: 31-46.

[3] James 2:14-17.

[4] Acts 4:13.

[5] John 15:1-6.

[6] Luke 6:43-45.

[7] Galatians 5:22.

[8] 1 Corinthians 13:1-7, 13.

[9] Matthew 22:34-40

[10] Numerous references, including John 13:34-35; Romans 12:10; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 John 4:11.

[11] Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36.

[12] John 13:35.

[13] Matthew 6:1-18.

[14] Colossians 3:23-24.

[15] Romans 3:21-26.

[16] John 3:16.

[17] Psalm 34:8a.

Whatever you do

The church I attend recently initiated several outreach ministries. I chose to join the Welcome Team since I want to help visitors feel at home and encourage them to return. At our first meeting, I agreed to lead the team as I generally enjoy dealing with details and organizing activities. Unfortunately, I also have the tendency to feel overwhelmed when faced with too many tasks at once. Pressure isn’t my friend so it wasn’t terribly unexpected when I started waking up in the wee hours thinking about all the things we needed to do to establish this new ministry.

Praise the Lord for reining me in with words of wisdom from my spiritual mother, Susan Hunt.

Susan approached me the week after our kick-off meeting to describe Word-driven  vs. task-driven ministries, i.e. why are we doing what we do? If it’s merely to check off a number of items on a prescribed list instead of seeking our purpose in God’s Word, we’ll soon burn out. I needed that brief, thought-provoking conversation to reboot my efforts. Yep, I’d sent out to-do-list, task-oriented emails to the team, making sure everyone was copied and all details were covered, but we hadn’t laid the foundation: Why were we even concerned about welcoming visitors? And how about warmly receiving those who already belong to our body of believers?

Not surprisingly, Scripture contains numerous passages addressing these subjects:

  • God repeatedly commanded the Israelites to be kind to the sojourners among them, remembering that they too had been aliens in Egypt.[1] The basis for these admonitions was reiterated by Jesus when he instructed his followers to treat others the way they themselves would like to be treated.[2]
  • The Gospel itself is welcoming. Once we were separated from Christ, strangers to the covenants of promise. But now in Christ Jesus we have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . So we are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.[3]
  • Jesus commends those who welcome strangers as having welcomed Him personally.[4]
  • Believers are encouraged to meet together regularly to encourage one another and to stir up one another to love and good works.[5]
  • In his letter to believers in Rome, Paul writes, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.[6]

There it is! See it? Our overarching purpose in all things is to glorify God.[7] Furthermore, Jesus declared that obedience to his commands is one of the best ways to demonstrate our love for God,[8] a statement affirmed by the Apostle John in his first epistle.[9]

Several months ago, my 4-year-old granddaughter, Lyla, went to church with me. I was delighted to have her along, but, being an introvert like her grandmother, she was reticent to enter her age-appropriate Sunday school class full of strangers. I gently pried her off my leg and walked across the hall to my class, praying her angst would be short-lived. My petitions were answered, as they often are, beyond what I could have imagined.[10] Not only was Lyla smiling as we headed into the sanctuary, but she gladly joined the gaggle of children surrounding our pastor when it came time for his weekly moment-of-prayer with them. IMG_4644As I watched, the reason for her change in demeanor became obvious. One of the slightly-older girls had taken Lyla under her wing. She welcomed her into the circle and draped her arm around her shoulders as they bowed their heads.

That image will stay with me. Such a beautiful example of welcoming a stranger, of doing unto others. Lord, may we be faithful to do likewise, remembering that whatever we do for the least of these, we do unto You.[11]

[1] See for example, Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:19.

[2] Matthew 7:12.

[3] Ephesians 2:12-13, 19

[4] Matthew 25:35b

[5] Hebrews 10:24-25

[6] Romans 15:5-7

[7] 1 Corinthians 10:31

[8] John 14:23-24

[9] 1 John 2:3-6

[10] Ephesians 3:20

[11] Matthew 25:40

An audience of One

IMG_0024 (2)Mom says she could always tell when I saw her in the audience at one or another of my elementary school concerts. A smile would spread across my face and I would relax, knowing my biggest fan was there. And so it was with my daughters and now my grandchildren. Indeed, wise directors of lower-school productions allow a few minutes before commencing for their performers to connect with those who’ve come to watch. Exchanging waves and grins makes for a cheerful beginning all around.

Truth be told, Mom is still my biggest cheerleader and encourager, the one I can always count on to be in my corner. From her fervent prayers to her interest in every post on this blog, her support is unwavering. I hope my daughters feel that same constancy of care from me.

We never outgrow our need for unconditional love or the assurance we’re accepted, short-comings and all. It’s a rare person who’s immune to the opinions of others, especially those we’re in contact with most. We prefer to be viewed positively by our neighbors, work colleagues, fellow church-goers, classmates and friends. Yet, given our fallen natures, opportunities to reject others and be rejected abound from our earliest years. Childish name-calling and shunning give way in later years to backbiting and various forms of adult exclusion.

We were made for relationship with God and each other. Our innate desire to connect and be well-received may lead us astray or cause us to hide parts of ourselves. Rejection hurts. Misunderstandings wound. If only I could explain – my tribulations, my perspective, my hopes – maybe then they’d comprehend.

No one can fully understand another. At times even our own hearts deceive us.[1] Yet there is One who knows me even better than I know myself. The One who knit me together in Mom’s womb, who wrote each of my days in his book before any came to be, who never loses sight of me.[2] Not only does He know me intimately, He purposed to save me by sending his Son to die for me – the epitome of unconditional love.[3]

Isaiah 53 describes the suffering Savior as “despised and rejected”.[4] Not only did those closest to him misunderstand his mission, hoping for an earthly kingdom, they abandoned him in his darkest hours, first by falling asleep, then by fleeing.[5] Truly, He understands our sorrows.

I recently came across the phrase “audience of one”, as in “Jesus, the One and only, Savior and Lord.” It resonated deeply with me. Even though I would like others’ approval and affirmation, his “well done” is not only sufficient, but supreme.[6] In fact, pleasing the Lord above all others is so important, the Apostle Paul includes reminders in several of his letters. Whether eating, working or serving, whatever we do is to be done for his glory.[7]

When plagued with self-doubt or troubled with a nameless sense of disquiet, I often pray David’s prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”[8] Though we may be pummeled by differing opinions and challenged by clamoring voices, we have the assurance that his sheep hear his voice.[9] He will show us the way[10] and lead us on level ground.[11]

As we journey forth, precious are those who come alongside to encourage, support and cheer us on, for they give us a glimpse of God’s unconditional love. I am immensely grateful for the life-givers He’s placed along my path. They are among his greatest blessings.

“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage (our) hearts and strengthen (us) in every good deed and word.”[12]

[1] Jeremiah 17:9

[2] Psalm 139:1-18

[3] Romans 5:6-8

[4] Isaiah 53:3

[5] Matthew 26:36-56

[6] Galatians 1:10

[7] See, for example, 1 Corinthians 10:13; Colossians 3:17,23; Ephesians 6:7-8

[8] Psalm 139:23-24

[9] John 10:2-5

[10] Isaiah 30:21

[11] Psalm 143:10

[12] 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17

Passalongs

Sharing plants is one of the many joys of being a gardener. The tradition is especially strong in the South. In fact, some varieties known as passalong plants aren’t readily available for purchase. Instead they’ve survived for decades by being passed along from one generation of horticulture enthusiasts to the next.

Although I don’t have anything particularly difficult to come by in my garden, I’m blessed to have numerous plants given to me by fellow plant lovers: hosta from an aunt who had the greenest of thumbs; a hydrangea grown from a cutting of a friend’s father’s plant; multiple trilliums dotting the woods, offspring of a lone rescue plant; mayapples, spurred violets, several varieties of ferns. The list would be quite extensive if I catalogued each leafy gift. And then there are all the treasured items Ray planted that continue to flourish some 20 years after his passing.

Tending these perennials and woodies, anticipating their return each year and watching them grow gives me a great deal of pleasure, pleasure which is multiplied by remembering the people and circumstances which led to them being in my garden. I also think of plants I’ve shared now growing in friends’ gardens and I smile.

As much as I relish exchanging plants, I recognize I’ve been entrusted with something much more precious to pass along: my faith. Although trusting God and acknowledging Jesus as Savior and Lord are gifts only God can give[1], He commissions us to tell others about his great love.[2] Our first responsibility is to our families. We’re advised to teach our children his commandments as we go about our daily lives[3] and to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.[4] But our mandate to reach others with the Good News doesn’t end there. We are to be light, living in such a way that we glorify our Father[5], always prepared to give an answer to those who wonder where our hope comes from. [6]

In fact, when we consistently live out our faith, God can use even the smallest details to reach others. I’m reminded of this when I recall a long-ago conversation with a business associate. I casually remarked I was glad our meeting had ended earlier than planned so I could make it to Bible study that evening. Several weeks later she asked if she could talk to me about my beliefs, having been encouraged to do so by my offhanded comment regarding Bible study.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul mentions different roles we might assume in others’ spiritual journeys. We may be called to sow seeds, to water,[7] to weed . . .

. . . Ok, I added the part about weeding, but I think its importance can be inferred from Jesus’ parable of the sower since the seeds that sprouted among the thorns were soon overcome by their weedy cohorts. Similarly, faith may be smothered by the worries of this life and become unfruitful [8], but I digress . . .

. . . In spite of the great privilege we have to labor in God’s fields, doing our part to ensure a plentiful harvest, Paul goes on to make it clear that God alone is the One who brings about growth.[9] Likewise, Jesus referred to himself as the true vine, his Father as the Gardener, and we, his followers, as the branches. As long as we abide in him we will produce much fruit, but apart from him we can do nothing.[10]

I cherish the passalong plants in my garden and the friends who gave them to me. Even more, I treasure those who’ve planted, watered and weeded my spiritual garden and the blessing of doing the same in the lives of my fellow sojourners. May we hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, considering how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds[11] as we make our way most assuredly back to the Garden, for He who promised is faithful.

[1] Ephesians 2:8-9

[2] Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15

[3] Deuteronomy 6:4-9

[4] Ephesians 6:4

[5] Matthew 5:

[6] 1 Peter 3:15-16

[7] 1 Corinthians 3:5-6a

[8] Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23; Mark 4:1-9, 14-20; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15

[9] 1 Corinthians 3:6b-7

[10] John 15:5

[11] Hebrews 10:23-24

‘Tis so sweet

Probably not the heading you’d expect for a reflection on two decades of widowhood . . . at least not until you complete the title of the cherished hymn, ’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus and recall its first verse: “’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, Just to take Him at His word, Just to rest upon His promise, Just to know ‘Thus saith the Lord.’” [1] As I’ve contemplated writing this memorial post, the refrain of that anthem has come to my mind repeatedly: “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er! Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! O for grace to trust Him more!”[2]

This time 20 years ago I was in a daze, a protective state of shock. On some level I recognized the need to make decisions regarding my 39-year old husband’s services – visitation, funeral, burial. So many decisions brought about by his sudden death the night before. But more than anything I just felt numb. My thoughts churned. “How could he have gone to work and not come home? Surely he’ll drive up any minute now, won’t he?” My mind and emotions grappled with the surreal situation I found myself in.

It was a Sunday and my house was full as friends came and went all day. Many heard the news at church, where we would normally have spent our morning had the unthinkable not occurred. Visitors came bearing food and encouraged me to eat, but I had no appetite. All I wanted was to be with Ray, to somehow help him, to know he was ok. When I finally got to see him on Tuesday afternoon, the knot in my stomach began to relax. I know that sounds contradictory, but in viewing his lifeless body I knew he was beyond any help I could offer. Furthermore, I was comforted to know his spirit was with the Lord. He was much more than ok. He was Home.[3]

Decisions were made, relatives and out-of-town friends made arrangements to attend the services – visitation Wednesday evening, funeral Thursday morning, burial in North Carolina on Friday afternoon. I can recall the events of that week in vivid detail. The people who gathered around us; prayers so abundant and fervent I could feel them; numerous gestures of support. I remember and am thankful.055

The flurry of activity and visitors eventually subsided and my daughters, ages 10 and 7, and I were left to contend with reality. I don’t recollect how many nights passed before one or more of us didn’t cry ourselves to sleep, how long it was before my subconscious stopped expecting Ray to come home from work, or when a “new normal” finally took hold. The raw pain of loss eventually diminished, but the longing to talk to Ray, to have my wise and loving partner by my side remains to this day.

So much has happened since that warm week in April, the daily ins and outs of life plus birthdays, graduations, weddings and the arrival of grandchildren. These momentous occasions were bittersweet without Ray to share them, but there has been much joy nonetheless.

Because God has never forsaken us![4]

From the second we heard the devastating news in a tiny room at Kennestone hospital to this very moment, God has been a faithful defender of this widow and a Father to her fatherless girls.[5] As I’ve thought about what to write on this 20th anniversary, each hardship that came to mind was met with a “but God”. A few examples: He made it possible for my parents to move to Georgia to help me raise Mary and Jessie, provided friends who’ve faithfully prayed for us and offered other assistance as needed, and he allowed me to be gainfully employed all the years my daughters were dependent upon me and my income. In addition there are the over-and-above gifts, like getting to go back to school to study horticulture.

I’ve often said if there’d been a signup sheet entitled “Get to know God better by losing your Husband”, I wouldn’t have put my name on it. Yet God sovereignly saw fit to add the roles of widow and single parent to my resumé. I have no doubt I’ve come to know him far better than if I’d had my earthly husband and provider to depend on. And so I can say as Louisa M.R. Stead did in the last stanza of her hymn, “I’m so glad I learned to trust Him, Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend, And I know that He is with me, Will be with me to the end.”

God owes me nothing, including explanations. Although I don’t remember ever being angry with God, I have wondered on more than one occasion why he took Ray so young. I’d reason it made no sense because he was a kind, caring spouse, parent, friend. But God sending his perfect Son to die in my place doesn’t make sense either.[6] Moreover, it is ample proof of his infinite and unconditional love. Yet He constantly pours out reminders, blessings both big and small.

Although my girls and I bear the scars of losing a beloved father and husband all-too-soon (at least from a human perspective), the Lord has comforted us that we might comfort others.[7] He has bestowed upon us the oil of joy instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.[8] Some who’ve witnessed our journey comment on our strength. May they recognize that apart from the Lord we would have none.[9] We are a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor[10]. Truly all praise, glory and honor belong to him alone.

 

[1] Louisa M.R. Stead, lyrics; William J. Kirkpatrick, music, 1882

[2] Ibid

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:1-9

[4] Deuteronomy 31:6

[5] Psalm 68:5

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

[7] 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

[8] Isaiah 61:3a

[9] See, for example Psalm 46:1-3, Psalm 73:25-26 and Isaiah 40:28-31

[10] Isaiah 61:3b